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Managing Collections

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“To Accept or not to Accept?”

Managing Collections

Dr. Jones, Curator for the Museum of Western Stuff, has been asked to review a collection of pottery being considered for acquisition. The potential donor, who understands that his entire collection will not be exhibited at any one time, has made it a condition that the entire collection be accepted and retained in the Museum collections as a unit. Dr. Jones has examined the collection and has made two significant observations: (1) the collection is of tremendous research importance and would complement and benefit the Museum's existing collections, and (2) there are certain pieces in the collection that are identical to pottery that has been repatriated to American Indian groups in the state under conditions of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Should Dr. Jones accept the collections under the conditions of the donor, knowing that portions of the collection "might" be subjected to repatriation?

The scenario above was submitted to Jason Jackson (Curator of Ethnology) and Julie Droke (Registrar and Repatriation Specialist) at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History (SNOMNH). Excerpts of their comments follow.  They note, of course, that their commentary represents a hypothetical response and does not represent any institution where they now work or have previously worked.

“If faced with an actual situation,” wrote Jackson, “such as the hypothetical one that you describe, I would outline the situation as clearly as possible for the potential donor—explaining the legislation—its history, rationale and implementation; reviewing the museum's history of consultation and collaboration with the communities involved and explaining why such relationships are important to the institution; and clarifying that any museum would operate under the same conditions and that thus a different museum, could not, in actuality, approach the matter from some radically different point of view.  While such restricted gift clauses were adopted in the past, few museums today would approach a gift in this manner, as it creates many impossible situations for reasons beyond repatriation law. I would explain all the factors that might lead a responsible museum to need to de-accession a collection at some future date (including but not limited to all sorts of repatriation activities).  

Even if the situation in clause 2 [of the scenario] did not exist, I would not wish to support accepting a gift that could not be legally de-accessioned under circumstances where this were the appropriate museum choice (at some future date).  For instance, de-accession might be necessary in the event that an object is damaged in such a way that continued curation poses a stewardship risk to other collections, or an object might be discovered to contain a chemical or radioactive hazard that cannot be mediated and is harming the health of staff and visitors to the museum.  Also, de-accession could be appropriate if a museum’s mission is formally changed; in such a case, the museum’s collections could better serve another institution.  As far as the repatriation question goes, my goal would be to educate the donor and thereby help her/him come to an understanding in keeping with the spirit and letter of the legislation.”

Julie Droke wrote: “It's excellent that Jones is making a thorough internal review (including NAGPRA) of the objects prior to making a decision to accept these items.  If a situation like this were to arise at SNOMNH, where conditions [for accepting a collection] are requested by the donor, justification for acceptance would need to proceed to a higher level than curatorial—in our case to the director, and perhaps the university's legal counsel.  In other institutions, it might go to a board of directors.

Our Collections Management Policy states that, ‘acquired items should not be encumbered with conditions by donor.’ … [Also relevant] is our ‘Policy on Culturally Sensitive Material Subject to NAGPRA and Repatriation.’  It states, ‘to the fullest extent possible, the [museum] will consult with the living cultural groups regarding ownership, consent, and treatment issues before deciding whether to acquire potentially sensitive material related to those groups.’ … If for some reason [the museum] were to decide to accept such a collection that involved NAGPRA items, the museum would have an immediate responsibility to comply with NAGPRA, and would have to begin consultations and prepare summaries for what could be unassociated funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony.”

Here are some comments for consideration from members of the Committee on Ethics. Think about the variety of responses and the issues on which they focus. What do you think? Should Dr. Jones accept the collections?

Larry Zimmerman says:
“No. That the collection would be useful for research and would complement the existing collections in most ways would be irrelevant. These considerations should not become excuses to avoid possible legal and ethical obligations. Under NAGPRA, the museum would be obliged to follow the processes set out in the law and its regulations.  Avoiding these obligations may in fact get the museum into trouble over the long term. Even with unclear provenance, if certain pieces are identical to previously repatriated materials, you can assume their cultural contexts were similar, if not identical. Even though you might not be able to prove that the items were grave goods or sacred objects (allowing you technically to avoid NAGPRA), ethically you and your museum may wish to abide by the spirit of the law. Nothing in NAGPRA precludes documentation and study of the objects, and in fact, may increase their likelihood of being thoroughly documented, allowing at least some of the research potential to be met.  

“A better approach would be to sit down with the potential donor and provide information about NAGPRA and its implications for both the museum and the donated collection. In general the public supports the spirit of NAGPRA, so you may find the donor to be very understanding. If the donor still objects, then walk away, with your thanks to the donor for making the offer.”  

Anita Spring and Ken Sassaman responded:
“Because that pottery is identical to some other pottery is not grounds for a repatriation claim, as it would have to be judged on its own terms from context, not from style or morphology or any such physical property.  If the curator had sound knowledge that probability of repatriation was better than average, then she/he would be obliged to let the donor know that some of the items may be repatriated some day.  Then it is up to the donor to decide.  However, (and here's the rub), if the curator believed that the donor would turn around and sell/donate the items to someone who would, in turn, dissociate them from provenience information (hence diminish scientific value), then he/she might very well want to consider the greater good and accept the collection irrespective of potential repatriation.  After all, when he/she accepts the collection, it is with the honest intent of keeping it intact.  If it gets split up there after, at least the information about the objects (measurements, photographs, etc) is collected and curated with the remaining items.  In other words, by getting the collection, it can be converted to information (and even used for a while for displays) that will have a shelf life beyond the objects themselves.  For example, most archeologists would take it, since they jump at any opportunity to salvage looted sites knowing that they have insufficient funds to process and curate the material, but that the consequence of inaction would be complete loss of information.”

Rachel Caspari commented:
“I don't think the Museum can accept it under the conditions of the donor. However, the curator can make conditions of acceptance known to the donor along with an explanation of the importance of the collection to the museum. The curator should make clear that under the law certain pieces may be have to be repatriated (and that all museums are similarly bound), and should list the pieces thought to be affected under NAGPRA.  They could emphasize that the museum will try to keep the collection together, but cannot guarantee it, and hope that the public spirit of the donor will prevail!”

Finally, Anne Pyburn notes:
“Unfortunately none of these situations can be answered with a simple inflexible rule. Or perhaps, the rule is to investigate every situation carefully and think hard about what to do before doing it. Many variables must be weighed and in many cases it is possible to take advantage of specific circumstances to make everyone happy, or at least somewhat happy. If we always put a simplistic version of the rules forward we will end up serving the rules, rather than using them to serve ethical human needs as intended. I can imagine a dozen scenarios in which the curator could work out a deal to make everyone happy - perhaps the curator or donor might work with the Native American group to care for the collection and make it available for study through the tribe. Perhaps formal recognition of his generosity from the tribe might make the donor happy enough to voluntarily give some things back. Perhaps the tribe might be comfortable having these things in a museum if some of their young people were given scholarships to do work with the collections. It would be essential for the curator to be able to explain what "tremendous research importance" means. If the collection has such fundamental importance for research then it ought to be possible for an expert in cross-cultural communication/understanding (i.e. an anthropologist) to make a convincing argument to that effect to anyone.

Dr. Jones must:
1. Notify the donor/collector that he is notifying the relevant Native American groups of the existence of the collection and then do it; encourage them to speak to the collector/donor directly.
2. Explain the law to the donor/collector, but use ethnographic expertise to explain the situation to the collector in the way that is most likely to be well received.
3. Putting unprovenienced collections in museums either in storage or on display increases the value of looted artifacts and encourages looting. Taking artifacts into a "scientific collection" under these conditions places the artifacts above their provenience – and above the human rights of living people. In short, it puts the curators values on par with the values of the looters and collectors. It sends the wrong message and accomplishes exactly what archaeologists are charged not to do.
4. Notify relevant scholars of the existence of the collection and approach the donor/collector about recording and documenting the collection for study; this is very “iffy” as it will add to the value of the collection (and other such collections). However, scholars interested in the material should have positive relationships with relevant living groups who might wish such study/documentation to occur if they themselves are denied access (or in order to establish access), which would be a valid reason for the research in the absence of provenience. The interested archaeologists should be able to help the curator explain why the collection is so important for study to the Native American group.”

So you see, there are no “hard and fast” answers when it comes to ethical issues, are there? Each student and professional must examine the sum of the issues in order to make informed decisions that have the least negative impact on the populations involved.

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